Thursday, October 24, 2013


ELECTROTHERAPY - the shocking treatment

By Keith Souter aka CLAY MORE

In my first western novel Raw Deal at Pasco Springs, believe it or not, one of the main characters is a doctor. He considered himself to be an up-to-date doctor and used electrotherapy in his practice. He was not alone in that, for doctors in Europe and America were adding it to their range of treatments. 

Here is a snippet:

Lucinda squeezed Tom’s hand while Doc Hawkins deftly sutured the wound on her shoulder.
‘You were lucky my girl,’ the doctor remarked, peering through wire framed spectacles perched on the tip of his nose. ‘A few inches East and …’
‘Don’t even think of that, Doc,’ Lucinda said with a shiver. ‘It’s bad enough that they murdered poor Curly.’
The doctor straightened up and sucked air between his teeth. ‘Your arm’s going to feel real numb for a few days, unless I stimulate the nerves and muscle.’ He  crossed his consulting room to a table on the far side of his roll-top desk. It was bedecked with strange looking glass jars full of liquids, rods and copper coils. He selected one with long wires leading from it and returned to the couch.
‘The very latest in medicine from back East,’ he explained. ‘This is a galvanic battery for giving what they call Faradic Stimulation.’ He handed Lucinda a rod to hold while he strapped a paddle gently over her upper arm.
‘This’ll tickle a bit,’ he informed her as he twisted wires together on top of the battery. Immediately the muscles on her arm started to twitch so that despite herself, Lucinda giggled.
‘Why it’s making my arm move all by itself,’ she uttered in amazement.
‘This is the future, folks,’ said the doctor. ‘Copper! These wires transmit electric currents. Back East they have buildings illuminated with electric light.’ His  eyes twinkled almost reverently, as if he could see this vision of the future. ‘One day we’ll laugh at our primitive kerosene lamps and simple electric batteries like these.’
Lucinda giggled again. ‘I think you’d better turn this tickling machine of yours off now Doc, or I’m going to pee myself with laughing.’

 Electricity was definitely in the air in the nineteenth century. That is to say that the discoveries about electricity that had been made in the previous century had opened up whole new areas of research. The Italian Luigi Galvani (1737-1798) an anatomist and professor of obstetrics at Bologna University had performed experiments on frogs’ legs and discovered that electricity could make them twitch. Then Alessandro Volta (1745-1827), a professor of physics at Pavia University invented the first battery, the voltaic pile.
It seemed that this was a power that could have immense benefit in medicine – and all sorts of folk started using it.

John Wesley and Ethereal Fire
The name of John Wesley (1703-1791) is forever associated with Methodism, which he founded along with his younger brother Charles Wesley. He was an Anglican minister but found himself banned from many pulpits because his religious views were considered radical. He therefore travelled extensively, both in England and America, preaching in open areas to the poor whom he often found to be excluded from churches. In America he railed against the practice of slavery.

            Not only did he believe that he was called to help people with their spiritual needs, but he also wrote about medicine and how people could use self-help techniques when they were ill. His book Primitive Physick was published in 1747 and was widely sold and used.

In that same year he saw for the first time an exhibition of Galvanism, or the use of electric batteries called Leyden jars to create shocks. Wesley was quick to grasp the opportunities that this amazing power, which he called ‘ethereal fire’, could hold. He became a devotee of electrotherapy and began using it to treat the poor on his travels and in a special free dispensary that he established. In 1759 he wrote The Desideratum, or Electricity made plain and useful.
Wesley subscribed to the theory that ethereal fire, as they knew electricity, caused capillaries to dilate and that it released all manner of blockages that were causing disease.
Soon ‘ethereal fire’ was being used to give shocks to people to cure them of arthritis and rheumatism, epilepsy, blindness, paralysis, back pain, sciatica and that cursed affliction of the spirits, melancholia or depression. So successful were his treatments that other dispensaries were established and Wesley’s reputation as a healer soared.
            Many of the conditions that he treated may have been amenable to electrical shocks. Certainly his use of it in depression may have been one of the only effective treatments at that time.

Nineteenth century electrotherapy
The Victorians were ingenious at constructing machines and gadgets. There was something awe-inspiring about medical machines with wires, rotating parts and cylinders and flasks that sparked and produced shocks. Doctors all over Europe and America invested in electrotherapy machines to treat everything from headaches to piles. Indeed a common treatment for piles was called ‘anal Faradism’, which involved the insertion of a rod into the rectum, followed by an electrical discharge to singe the piles. It must have been excruciating.
            All manner of belts, straps, rings and supports, which could be ‘charged’ were devised. They all had a dramatic effect, since they would produce a sensation that people could feel, and since they felt it so strongly it would be likely to produce a strong placebo effect. This is not to say, however, that any beneficial effect would be purely placebic, since we know today that various types of electrical stimulation can be helpful in the management of pain. Transcutaneous Electrical nerve Stimulation, or TNS is such a method commonly used today.

              And the belt had an internal attachment to help with other problems!

            Of less certain effect, however, would be the Galvanic Spectacles, which were invented and patented by Judah Moses of Hartford, USA in 1868. A British patent for a similar invention was granted to John Leighton in 1888. These consisted of a spectacles frame with a zinc plate and a chrome plate which settled over the bridge of the nose, with leads that attached to a small galvanic battery. A discharge of electricity was thought to stimulate the optic nerve, which they proposed would improve the eyesight. Some users of the galvanic spectacles even suggested that it would clear sinusitis and cure the common cold.

            In Paris in 1853 Dr Guillaume Duchenne published an account of his success with electricity in various conditions.  His work A Treatise on Localised Electrization and its Application to Pathology and Therapeutics was to prove influential in medical circles.
            Doctors working in the medical asylums of the day had virtually no effective treatments. Patients were physically restrained and there was no drug that could help psychotic states or the harrowing condition of depression. Electrotherapy seemed to offer some help, even if no-one knew how it worked. There were three types of electricity that they could use. Galvanism, which produced a direct current. Faradism or an induced current. And Static electricity given directly or charged in a Leyden jar. However, despite initial promise and continued use during the Victorian era the results were quite disappointing and eventually it fell into disuse. It was not reintroduced until 1938 when Cerletti and Bini introduced a very specific therapeutic use of electricity in the technique of Electro-Convulsive Therapy, or ECT, in which electricity was applied to one or both hemispheres of the brain in order to induce a convulsion.
            Other doctors were not to rigid and thought that electrotherapy had a legitimate place in the treatment of rheumatic and arthritic conditions. Indeed, it was in this area that its use would thrive all through the Victorian era and well into the twentieth century. Even today in the twenty-first century it has a place in many painful conditions, when used under the guidance of appropriately trained practitioners. 

Hell on the Prairie, the sixth Wolf Creek book features Keith (Clay More's) character Dr Logan Munro, the town doctor in THE OATH, a story about a spectre from his past. 

Logan has been in Books 1, 4 and 6, and 8 and is scheduled for more.

And his other new character, Doc Marcus Quigley, dentist, gambler and occasional bounty hunter continues in his quest to bring a murderer to justice, in RATTLER'S NEST in his  ebook short stories THE ADVENTURES OF DOCTOR MARCUS QUIGLEY published by High Noon Press.

Raw Deal at Pasco Springs, featuring that electrotherapy-toting doctor was originally published by Hale as a Black Horse Western, but is now available as an ebook from Western Fictioneers Library.


  1. Fascinating article, Keith. I never knew there were so many uses for electricity when it came to the body. But, then late one night, on an obscure cable channel, I see a commercial electrical-stimulation abdominal belts to help in achieving weight loss, of all things. I guess 19th century technology is good enough for 21st century charlatans.

  2. I can't get enough of this stuff.
    I Really enjoy the posts Keith and the adventures of Marcus Quigley as well.

  3. Thanks, Tom. Oh yes, those belts are on the market over here as well. The theory is that they stimulate muscle movement, so you are burning energy while you go about your daily activity. And the thing about electricity is that you feel it.

    We use TENS - Transcutaneous nerve stimulation in pain relief and it can be highly successful when other things have failed.

  4. Thanks, Jerry. I really enjoyed Charlie's Money.

  5. And I thought my great-uncle's kerosene cure for piles was bad.

    I had many, many TNS treatments after I broke my neck and injured the rhomboid and other muscles. I must admit, I was very leery of the first treatment after my experience with electric fences, but TNS is actually quite soothing and did seem to help.

  6. Sorry to hear that yo had such a bad injury, Jacquie, but glad that you had a good response to TENS.

    I use it a lot, as well as electro-acupuncture in my practice. We just use different frequencies.

  7. The problem with the treatment is it's so expensive. $140 for 30 minutes, three times a week. So obviously that didn't last very long. It must be a very expensive machine, because I only used about 5 minutes of the therapist's time each session--if that.

  8. Keith, once again, another awesome article! I am like Jerry--I just can't get enough of your posts! I had no idea that electricity had been used for so long in medical practice. My sister used TENS with her arthritis. This is just amazing.

  9. Jacquie, all I can say is - gosh! A TENS unit costs half that. I just looked on They do vary in price, of course, but it looks as if you were paying a lot for the therapist's expertise in placing the pads rather than the TENS machine.

  10. Thanks, Cheryl. In fact, electricity has been used for a very long time. Galen, a famous Greek born, Roman physician of the second century advocated using electric eels to treat various conditions.

    Doc Adams in Gunsmoke was named after him - Doc Galen Adams.

  11. Dr. Keith,

    I knew I was missing something! Currently taking 26 prescription pills a day. I guess I could use a little electric stimulation. Or better yet, WE COULD ALL USE A LITTLE ELECTRIC STIMULATION!

    Doc, would it make a better world and make us all a little bit nicer to each other?

    Saw use of electric devices in a turn of the century movie and one of the patients, during treatment died from electric shock.

    It's wonderful how far medicine has come, and still shocking how much medical practitioners don't know.

    Terrific post---as always!

    Charlie S.

  12. Thanks, Charlie. You are so right. we are still scratching the surface over the complexities of the human condition.

  13. I always look forward to your posts. I learn so much or it verifies something I am researching. Thank you. Doris

  14. Wow, another great post, Keith! Love your Dr. Marcus Quigley and also Doc Munro. So true-to-life, both of them, and such great info. I'd sure trust Doc Munro. :-)

  15. Thank you, Doris. Always glad to help if I can.

  16. Thank you, Meg. They both seem real to me! And like most characters they never quite do what you expect them to.

  17. Another informative post - thanks for sharing all this great medical information!

  18. What an interesting and entertaining article. Just wondering, when was the electrocardiogram invented?

    1. Hi Sarah, I have a deadline on a book on heart disease at the end if next week. Willem Einthoven invented the ECG in 1903 and was awarded the Nobel prize for it in about 1924.

  19. Keith, this is really an interesting post. I had no idea electric therapy was that old. I had an aunt who was given electric shock therapy in the 1950's (but she was still nuts afterward). Thank you for such an informative post. Wishing you continued success with your writing career.

  20. Thank you, Caroline. ECT is still used, but only about 30% as often as in the 1980s when I was doing psychiatry. We have far more effective drugs now, but it is still used for treatment resistant depression.

  21. I reckon Charlie Steel's the only one taking more prescription drugs than me. He's welcome to first place. I read a western yesterday in which a man was shot in the shoulder. Comment by a character: Looks clean through and through (or words to that effect) and I wondered just where in a person's shoulder a bullet go go clean through and through without major problems. We often use shoulder wounds to hurt characters slightly, but thinking about shoulder anatomy, I wonder where such a bullet would have to go, other than through the muscle outside the arm bone.

    Good post, Keith, and thanks for all the help with Night of the Assassins.